I became intimately familiar with SARs only ten days after I arrived at NKP. Although I didn’t directly work this SAR, it affected everyone at NKP. On Christmas Day, 1968, PJ A1C Charles King volunteered for the SAR mission to rescue a downed F-105 pilot. King was lowered to the ground to rescue the pilot, Major Charles Brownlee. It all went wrong. A1C King and Maj. Brownlee were ever seen again.
Over the next year, the SAR forces at NKP made many rescues. By rough count, there were over 100 SARs during my year… a little over half of them were successful. Unfortunately, during SARs we also lost four Sandy A-1s (602nd SOS), an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant (40th ARRS), an O-2 (23rd TASS) and an OV-10 (23rd TASS.) Of those SAR aircraft losses, there were three KIA.
My last SAR started on 5 Dec 68… just days before I got on the “Freedom Bird.” An F-4C out of Cam Ranh Bay, call sign Boxer-22*, was shot down in the Phanop Valley. Both the pilot, Capt. Ben Danielson (Boxer-22A) and the GIB**, 1Lt. Woody Bergeron (Boxer-22B), successfully ejected. Radio contact was made with both crew members. They were separated by the 50 foot wide Nam Ngo river, and both were in “good condition.”
If you have been following along with the pics in Places to go – Mu Gia Pass, by now you will recognize the area of the Boxer-22 SAR as a spot on the Nam Ngo River. The place was already pock-marked with bomb craters.
The Boxer-22 SAR started like most; two Jolly Greens helicopters and four Sandys (A-1s) took off mid-morning and headed toward Ban Phanop… only about 75 miles away from NKP. This wasn’t unusual. It was almost routine for the Sandys and Jollys to take off. Sometimes it was just precautionary if a big strike was in progress.
(Beginning in the Second Indochina War, close air support rescue aircraft used the call sign “Sandy” for fixed-wing aircraft. Starting with the introduction of the CH-3 helicopters, “Jolly” (for Jolly Green Giant) was the call sign for rescue helicopters. “Jolly” was also the rescue call sign for the “Super Jolly Green Giant HH-53. These call signs are still in use today.)
(I should also note that the early HH-43 rescue helicopters used the call sign “Pedro” and they continued that call sign for rescues throughout the rest of the war. The Pedros made more rescues than any other helicopter of the war.)
This time it was not routine. It was the beginning of the largest successful USAF rescue of the Second Indochina War… the Boxer-22 SAR. Over the next three days, the Air Force used everything it had to make the rescue. The following two paragraphs are directly from the USAF CHECO report, “Rescue at Ban Phanop:”
“By 1120 hours, a flight of A-1s carrying anti-personnel ordinance arrived and, supplemented by F-100s and F-105s which were in the area, began the first step of the rescue operation – suppression of the ground fire. For an hour and twenty minutes, the A-1s raked the valley floor, while the jets struck against the larger guns to the north. Two Jolly Green helicopters, which arrived just as the operation began, were held in orbit southeast of the downed airmen’s position. Both survivors were talking with Sandy [lead] and giving him information of the location and intensity of the ground fire.”
“During this hosing down operation, reports increased of heavy antiaircraft fire from both sides of the river, the heaviest coming from the karst on the east side. It was soon apparent that the ground threat was greater than was originally thought and that aircraft flying down the valley were being caught in a crossfire. Particularly troublesome was a 37-mm gun located in a cave at the foot of the karst 300 meters directly behind the navigator. Additional air support was requested. Six A-1s loaded with CBU 19/30 (riot control agents) were launched from Da Nang AB; two large Jolly Green helicopters took off from NKP and were replaced there in airborne alert by two more from Udorn RTAFB, and four F-4s departed from Ubon RTAFB carrying Paveway Laser-guided bombs for use against the 37-mm gun.”
I’ll pause here to talk about the “riot control agents” mentioned in the report. 1Lt Bergeron (Boxer 22B) got hit by some. After his rescue, he described it this way; “… I ran into a tree and was wrapped around the tree urinating, defecating, and retching all at the same instant.” Now you know why this agent has the nick-name, “juicy fruit.”
The Jollys tried to go in for the rescues six times on the day. The PJ supplying many of the pics for this, Doug Horka, was on the second of these attempts. Between each attempt by the Jollys, aircraft “hosed down” the valley. Each attempt received intense ground fire forcing the Jollys to withdraw… three were hit by 37mm fire causing extensive damage. On the third attempt at 1400 hours, PJ A1C David Davison was manning one of the mini-guns and trying to quiet the ground fire. He was shot and died of his wounds.
Darkness set in and the SAR forces withdrew to return the next morning. Danielson and Bergeron hid for the night but didn’t sleep. Unfortunately, before the rescue forces could get to Capt Danielson, the NVA discovered him. Capt Danielson died in the shoot-out.
The second day was much like the first. The Air Force threw everything they had against the NVA… Sandy’s, Hobos, Fireflyfies, Zoros, Spads, Nail FACs, and everything the close air support “slow mover” forces had. The “fast movers” sent in F-105s, F-4s, F-100s with some support from Navy A6s and A-7s thrown in.
Throughout the day, Boxer 22B ground FAC’ed aircraft against ground forces attempting to find him. In one case when a few NVA tried to cross the river, his call brought in a fast mover that strafed with 20mm gunfire. Lt. Bergeron said, “the guys physically disappeared.”
Despite the airpower sent against the NVA, massive fire opened up against the Jollys every time a rescue attempt was made… another 6 tries in all. The NVA would lie low during the “hosing down” and wait until the helicopters came in for an attempt. Then they ripped into the Jollys with ground fire.
As darkness set in on the second day, the SAR was again suspended. But the forces would not give up. At first light of the third morning, an armada of A-1s and Jolly Green Giants from NKP took off and joined with forces from all over Southeast Asia. “Fast movers” continued suppressing the AAA guns, and the A-1s hosing down the ground forces.
The first rescue attempt was about 0900. A-1s laid down a smoke-screen to shield the rescue helicopter from the ground fire. But again, the Jolly Green received heavy fire and had to withdraw. The Air Force continued to “sanitize” the area for another three hours.
Back at NKP, the weapons load section was asked how long it would take to load more “smoke.” The reply was an hour and a half. When told it was needed in an hour the load crews made an all-out effort… and had the aircraft ready in 50 minutes.
Near noon, a “daisy chain” of A-1s was set up; ten on one side of the river and twelve on the other. As the Jolly Green started its descent for another rescue attempt, the A-1s laid down smoke and a protective ring of ordinance around the survivor.
The A-1s circled around Lt. Bergeron as the Jolly made its approach. This time there was “no appreciable gunfire” from the enemy. One of the rescue forces said, “ They were all either dead or had given up.”
It worked. JG77 moved in… Lt. Bergeron waded into the river… and the Jolly lowered the penetrator to within 4 feet of him. He climbed on and was hauled into the helicopter.
(On a personal note… I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere in that picture. Two days later I began final out-processing.)
This was and still is the largest successful SAR in USAF history. Over the three days, there were 220 sorties flown out of NKP alone. Twelve of their A-1s receive battle damage. Ten Jolly Greens received battle damage… five of them would never fly again. Depending on who’s counting, upward of 400 total sorties were flown.
The amount of ordinance used during the SAR is staggering. Nearly every type of bomb, rocket, and air-to-ground missile in Southeast Asia was used. Even newly developed laser-guided 2000 lb “smart” bombs were used. Besides the smoke and “juicy fruit,” there were nearly four-hundred and fifty 500/750-pound bombs dropped, over 1,600 rockets fired, and over 100,000 bomblets dispersed from the air. No, that’s not a typo… over 100,000 bomblets (also known in Laos as bombies).
A team excavated the site near where Major Benjamin Franklin Danielson (promoted from Capt. while MIA) was shot down in Laos. His remains and other items were identified. He was repatriated in June 2007. Welcome home brother.
During our HCMTrail Ride, we will ride through the area where the SAR took place and specifically where Danielson and Bergeron were. I also hope we can go to the caves and other places where the AAA guns were. Don Duval knows the area well.
* SAR efforts were named with the call-sign of the aircraft shot down. Each crew member was assigned a letter to designate which one it was. In this case, “A” (or Alpha)the pilot (Danielson) and “B” (or Bravo) for the navigator (Bergeron). If an aircraft has more crew members, then each is assigned another letter.
** GIB = Guy in Back. In the case of F-4 aircraft at this time of the war, the GIB was the “Navigator”… or “Weapons Systems Officer” – WSO (WiSO). So many acronyms!